Global Coal Consumption Returns To Record Levels

The is the fifth article in a series on the recently released 2023 Statistical Review of World Energy. Previous articles discussed the trends in global carbon dioxide emissions, the overall highlights of the Review, the production and consumption of petroleum, and natural gas production and consumption.

Today let’s discuss coal.

Coal Emissions

In 2022, coal comprised 26.7% of the world’s primary energy consumption. That was behind oil (31.6%), but ahead of natural gas (23.5%). However, coal was responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than its fossil fuel counterparts.

Allow me to illustrate.

Fossil fuels are primarily composed of carbon and hydrogen. They are hydrocarbons. When hydrocarbons are combusted, the carbon forms carbon dioxide and the hydrogen forms water vapor. Coal contains a higher percentage of carbon than does oil or natural gas. So, when coal is combusted, it generates more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil or natural gas will generate.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), combustion of coal emits on average about 220 pounds of CO2 per million British thermal units (BTU) of energy. In comparison, oil emits about 160 pounds of CO2 per million BTU, and natural gas emits 117 pounds of CO2 per million BTU.

That means that for every million BTUs of energy consumed, in 2022 coal emitted 26.7% time 220 pounds, oil emitted 31.6% times 160 pounds, and natural gas emitted 23.5% times 117 pounds.

Sum it all up, and the relative cumulative contributions of these three fossil fuels to carbon dioxide emissions are coal at 43%, oil at 37%, and natural gas at 20%.

Coal also produces a lot of other harmful emissions when burned in power plants. Historically, coal plants emitted a lot of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain. Regulations eventually reined in that problem, but coal-fired power plants still emit pollutants like mercury. They even emit more radioactive elements into the environment than a nuclear power plant. Thus, there have been many regulations passed that have attempted to lower coal’s impact on the environment.

Because of the various pollution issues associated with coal, most developed countries have moved away from coal-fired power. But because coal is cheap, developing countries continue to rely heavily on coal as a source of power. Coal consumption in developing countries is presently the largest global driver of rising carbon dioxide emissions.

Coal Consumption

Over the past decade, coal consumption has declined in developed countries, and grown in developing countries.

Within the 38 countries that comprise the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), coal consumption has declined by an average annual rate of 3.9% over the past decade. In non-OECD countries, coal has grown at an average annual rate of 1.4%.

Consumption in the European Union (EU) has shown the same downward trend as the OECD. Over the past decade, EU coal consumption has declined at an average annual rate of 4.2%. But, in 2022, coal consumption in the EU reversed direction and grew by 2.0%. This was a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and EU countries replacing Russian natural gas with coal.

The net result was a global increase in coal consumption to the second-highest level on record, only 0.01% below the record level set in 2014. Essentially, despite all the world’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, coal consumption is as high as it has ever been.

Six of the world’s ten largest consumers of coal are in the Asia Pacific region. China still dominates global coal consumption (and production) and will likely continue to do so for many years. Below were the world’s Top 10 coal consumers in 2022. “Change” refers to the growth or decline from the previous year.

Coal Production

Most of the countries that consume a lot of coal also produce a lot of coal, so there is a lot of overlap with the previous table.

The biggest exception is Australia, which is a major coal producer but only the 14th largest consumer. Colombia is also a Top 10 producer, but it barely cracks the Top 50 among coal consumers.

In the next installment, I will take a closer look at global nuclear power trends.